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Continued: Sustainability can be a warm, fuzzy word that invites tyranny

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 11, 2008 - 8:59 PM

Today's socially conscious student finds it tough to keep up with all the latest buzzwords. He wants to be for "social justice" and against "institutional racism." He's keen to be seen as an "environmentalist," a "multiculturalist" and an "anti-imperialist."

The list, so to speak, goes on.

Wouldn't life be simpler if all the correct labels could be captured in just one word?

That magic word is here, and it's taking college campuses by storm.

The abracadabra bon mot is "sustainability."

In Minnesota, you'll find talk of sustainability at institutions ranging from public giants such as the University of Minnesota to community colleges, as well as private liberal arts colleges such as Macalester, St. Olaf and St. Thomas. Across the nation, institutions of higher education are adding sustainability to their strategic goals, and hiring a growing army of coordinators and bureaucrats to make it a reality on campus. Umbrella groups are popping up like mushrooms, bearing tongue-twisting names like the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium.

But what, exactly, does "sustainability" mean? It has the ring of improving the environment, and conjures up images of low-voltage light bulbs and farmers markets. If so, say many folks, bring it on.

Some institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Minnesota, do have a scientific, environmental focus and initiatives led by biologists and ecologists. But to a significant extent, the beauty of "sustainability" is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

In many cases, folks with a burning desire to transform the world are using the concept to piggy-back on legitimate environmental concerns, and get a foot in the door for every leftist cause under the sun.

Lee Bodner of ecoAmerica put it this way: "Sustainability, broadly speaking, is creating the ability for people to live on a planet that can support the population in an environmental way but also ultimately a way that promotes the good life for everyone, for social justice."

Told you it was magic.

What might "education for a sustainable society" look like? In 2006, Keith Edwards of Macalester and Kathleen Kerr of the University of Delaware outlined their vision at a national conference.

It's a myth that sustainability is "mostly about the environment," they assured their audience. Its reach extends to issues ranging from "environmental racism" and "domestic partnerships" to "gender equity" and "fair trade."

If we are to achieve a sustainable future, said Edwards and Kerr, students must "change their daily habits," reject their "consumer mentality," examine their society's "oppressive systems" and "develop a libratory consciousness."

Edwards declined a request for an interview.

But utopianism of this sort, no matter how well-intentioned, slips easily into totalitarianism. Last year, the brave new "sustainable" world was on display at the University of Delaware, where 7,000 students served as guinea pigs in an experimental dorm-based initiative.

The program provoked an outcry after it came to public attention, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Students complained that they were pressed to adopt university-approved views on race and other sensitive topics, participate in squirm-inducing exercises, and rated on their responses to questions about their sexual and cultural beliefs," according to the Inquirer.

Internal documents described the program as "treatment," as if students' incorrect opinions were equivalent to a mental disorder. Some training material claimed that "all white people living in the United States are racist."

In one exercise, students were instructed to go to different sides of the room, depending on whether they agreed with statements about affirmative action or gay marriage, according to a student who participated. In another, they were told to step forward or backward depending on their answers to statements about sexual identity and race.

There were also one-on-one meetings, in which dorm resident advisers asked students questions such as "When were you first made aware of your race?" and "When did you discover your sexual identity?" Students were also grilled about their commitment to working for social justice or promoting diversity.

The resident advisers rated their "best" and "worst" students according to their responses. One student singled out as a "worst" was "a young woman who said she was tired of having 'diversity shoved down her throat' and that the questions that were being asked were nobody's business," according to the Inquirer.

After students and faculty blew the whistle on the program, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia free-speech advocacy organization, investigated. "We have never encountered a more systematic assault upon individual liberty, dignity, privacy, and autonomy of university students than this program," wrote FIRE spokeswoman Samantha Harris in a letter to Patrick Harker, the university's president.

In November 2007, Harker shut down the program and called for a full review. This fall, it was made optional and reinstituted in a modified form.

There is one word for what this all adds up to, but it's not sustainability.

It's tyranny.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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